Jan. 6, 2022 marks the one-year anniversary of the attack on the U.S. Capitol building by supporters of former President Donald Trump.

Here, university experts in political science and law offer their thoughts on what the attack means.

The dangerous consequences of the political anger – elicited by the deliberate actions of then-President Donald Trump and his supporters – were undeniable on Jan. 6, 2021 when a mob of Trump’s supporters attacked the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C. 

While Jan. 6 was an extreme example of the consequences of political anger, a forthcoming study in the Journal of Politics finds political anger is driving Americans to discriminate against members of the opposite party in ways that impact their social interactions and relationships with friends, family and neighbors. 

Betsy Sinclair, professor of political science at Washington University in St. Louis — and co-authors Steven W. Webster (Indiana University) and Elizabeth Connors (University of South Carolina)— surveyed nearly 3,500 Americans to better understand how anger leads partisans to socially polarize across a range of settings. Key findings from the study include: 

  • Angry partisans were more likely than non-angry partisans to become socially polarized in relatively trivial ways such as refusing to help an out-partisan neighbor; avoiding a conversation with an out-partisan at a social event; rejecting an invitation to have coffee, a drink or a meal with an out-partisan; not joining a club with out-partisan members; and not going on a date with an out-partisan. 
  • Anger causes individuals to become socially polarized in more costly ways such as ending a close friendship with an out-partisan; cutting ties with a close family member who is an out-partisan; or disapproving of a son or daughter marrying an out-partisan.
  • Researchers found some evidence that the effect of political anger on social polarization is moderated by gender or race. In four of the 16 cases studied, women were more likely to translate their political anger into greater amounts of social polarization compared to men. Additionally, non-white respondents were less likely to let their political anger cause them to be uncomfortable with a family member dating a supporter of the opposing party. 

“Our research shows anger is a powerful force shaping the ways in which Americans view supporters of the opposing political party in social settings,” Sinclair said. 

“Unfortunately, anger has become a mainstay in American politics. If we continue down this path, it is likely that social polarization in the U.S. will increase, leading to more opportunities for Americans to stereotype and ‘de-humanize’ supporters of the opposing political party. We should all be concerned about that.”

“What has happened in the wake of January 6 is far more dangerous than what happened on January 6,” said Gregory Magarian, the Thomas and Karole Greene Professor of Law.

“If our society had a firm handle on constitutional democracy, then January 6 would have marked the end of Trumpism as a political force,” said Magarian, an expert on free speech the law of politics.

“Instead, Trumpism has consolidated its control of the Republican Party. Republicans have given relentless aid and comfort to the January 6 terrorists while expanding the anti-democratic, authoritarian Trumpist agenda that spawned the January 6 attack. It’s very hard right now to predict whether, in a few years, January 6 will look like an outrageous aberration or like the wave of the future.”

Magarian’s full view on the insurrection are available in a previous WashU Expert piece.